Al-Arian witness is defense's friend (7/19)July 19, 2005
St. Petersburg Times
Prosecutors hoped he would help prove obstruction of justice.
By Meg Laughlin
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TAMPA - Federal prosecutors had hoped that the testimony of a prominent Palestinian legislator would ultimately help convict Sami Al-Arian.
Instead, he turned out to be a star witness for the defense Monday.
Ziad Abu-Amr said the Palestinian Islamic Jihad - which the U.S. government considers to be a terrorist organization - does have a charitable arm, funding sports camps, kindergartens, child care and health services.
The government hoped to use Abu-Amr's testimony to prove obstruction of justice charges against Al-Arian by showing that Al-Arian manipulated Abu-Amr's words in a 2000 affidavit intended to help Al-Arian's brother-in-law, Mazen Al-Najjar, avoid deportation. But instead, Abu-Amr said Al-Arian had not influenced him, that the words were all his own.
"I asked him for guidance on how to to do the affidavit, not on what the content should be," Abu-Amr told the prosecution.
Then, the Palestinian Authority legislator, a peace negotiator for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, described the charitable and social work of the PIJ.
His testimony was particularly important to the defense because U.S. District Judge James S. Moody ruled in August that prosecutors must do more than show that Al-Arian raised money for the PIJ. They must show that the money went for violent purposes. But Abu-Amr's testimony showed just how difficult tracing the money's exact destination will be for the prosecution.
"It is easier now to find the institutions and charities supported or funded by Islamic Jihad," Abu-Amr said. "But they were there before 1994.".
The PIJ had not engaged in suicide bombings before 1994, he said. But between 1994 and 1996, they did. He said that "revenge killings and acts of hostility from both sides" resulted in repeated tragedies. The nonviolent activities of the PIJ were well-known in the occupied territories of Israel, he said, even though the Israeli government would not allow them to be licensed or registered.
"It's no secret," Abu-Amr said. "This is a society that relies heavily on local and external help."
When federal prosecutor Terry Zitek asked him how he knew kindergartens were supported by the PIJ, the witness said he went to them and asked, because of the access he had as a scholar and government official.
"To know this doesn't require academic research," he said. "You might see a flag, drawing or poster of Islamic Jihad - something like that - when you go there."
Abu-Amr said that in January he met with Ramadan Shallah, the PIJ leader who lived and worked in Tampa at the World & Islam Studies Enterprise, which Al-Arian founded in 1991. The witness said he was surprised in 1995 when Shallah left Tampa and became the PIJ leader. The reason for their January meeting: "To discuss the subject of the truce."
Abu-Amr said Shallah told him that the PIJ would consider a truce if the Israeli government stopped attacks on Palestinians and if PIJ members were not "targeted, assassinated or excluded from the (Palestinian Authority)."
Abu-Amr also said that recently, during a round of peace talks in Cairo, he had seen Al-Najjar, Al-Arian's brother-in-law who once lived in Tampa but was deported from the United States in 2002.
It was an effort to stop Al-Najjar's deportation that led Al-Arian to call Abu-Amr and request his help in August 2000. According to a transcript of an FBI wiretap, Al-Arian requested that Abu-Amr either testify for Al-Najjar or fax an affidavit. This affidavit was the subject of Monday's testimony.
At the end of the day, Judge Moody asked Zitek if he had expected such lengthy testimony from Abu-Amr.
"No," the prosecutor said. "I was surprised."